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VA still has years to go to finish housing effort in West LA

Navy veteran Levi Ross says he's homeless and came to the Stand Down event looking for housing assistance.
Navy veteran Levi Ross says he's homeless and came to the Stand Down event looking for housing assistance.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

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Paul Ivy jokes that although he never went to combat, serving in the Army taught him plenty.

"I learned how to do a whole lot of things," he said. "I especially learned how to pay attention."

On Friday, Ivy picked up a blanket, some clothes and some lightly used black sneakers provided by nonprofits and volunteers at the 3rd annual "Homeless to Housed Veteran Stand Down" event on the West Los Angeles VA campus.

Ivy was one of hundreds who lined up at the event. "I live right under the 405 bridge over there on Wilshire," he said. "It’s noisy over there but it’s also covered for when it starts raining."

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has begun responding to a legal challenge that it wasn't fully serving veterans like Ivy at its West L.A. campus. Hundreds of homeless veterans trying to access dental care, counseling, and housing vouchers at the Stand Down put the scope of the problem, and how far the VA has to go, into sharp relief.

"We see this campus as being a huge piece to ending veteran homelessness in Los Angeles," said Heidi Marston, the administrative director for community engagement and reintegration services at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center.

In 2011, a group of disabled and homeless Los Angeles veterans sued VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, alleging years of neglect and misuse at the West L.A. campus.

Part of the lawsuit targeted leases the VA had engaged in with businesses and organizations that had nothing to do with helping veterans, like a laundry facility for a Marriott hotel, bus parking and a television studio’s set storage. UCLA and the private Brentwood school also had athletic facilities on the campus. A judge declared eleven leases void in 2013.

Then-VA Secretary Robert McDonald reached a settlement with the plaintiffs in 2015. In January of last year, a partnership between the VA and a nonprofit group, Vets Advocacy, released a draft Master Plan to revitalize the campus. That blueprint included 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing, 700 short-term transitional units and a village for women veterans and their children.

Congress approved leasing authority late last year, allowing the VA to collaborate with nonprofits to build more housing and provide services on campus.

To date, the VA has opened 54 units of permanent supportive housing, in the refurbished Building 209, and announced plans for 100 more, once the remodeling of Buildings 205 and 208 is complete.

Marston said the Master Plan is undergoing environmental review, slated to go to public comment in late 2018.

"Once that’s completed, things can really start kicking off," she said. "But we have to make sure we’ve evaluated everything from light to traffic to air quality. We want to do it right the first time, so we don’t see delays on the back end."

In June 2017, Vets Advocacy released a report card blasting the VA for what it characterized as slow progress in implementing the West L.A. Master Plan and terminating bad leases.

"Building 209 was an effort that predated the Master Plan," said Jesse Creed, Executive Director of the group. "In our view, those were projects that were always going to happen. The question is whether the VA is seriously committed to not just 154 units, but 1,200 units of homeless housing."

Creed said his organization has opened up negotiations around partnering with L.A. County to utilize Measure H funding for veterans services on the VA campus.

Under the current Master Plan timeline, Creed estimated the first 500 new units of housing will come into service in late 2020.

"We’d like for it to happen more quickly," he said. "We’ve been concerned that the timeline has changed."  

The need for homeless veteran housing and services is greater in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the country. L.A. County's 2017 homeless count found over 4,800 veterans sleeping outside or in emergency shelters. That's a 57 percent jump from last year, and represents by far the largest homeless veteran population the the U.S.

The increase comes in the wake of a federal push to solve the problem of unsheltered vets.  In 2009, the Obama Administration announced an effort to end veteran homelessness in the United States within five years.

Local officials all over the country joined the effort, including L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who set a goal of housing every veteran in the city by 2016.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA announced a 47 percent nationwide decline in the number of homeless vets since 2010. States with smaller homeless veteran populations - like Virginia, Connecticut, and Delaware - claimed to have effectively ended veteran homelessness.

In Southern California, Garcetti was forced to walk back his pledge, blaming a surge in newly homeless veterans. Hundreds of local veterans found their vouchers provided through a joint HUD-VA program weren’t sufficient to cover sky-high Southern California housing costs.

While outgoing Veterans Affairs Secretary McDonald said earlier this year the VA remained focused on reaching the target of zero homeless veterans, the new secretary, David Shulkin, said in June the department was moving away from that target.